Over the past 5 years, there have been a handful of theologies that have greatly influenced me personally in my understanding of God, humanity and everything in between. In no specific order, they are…
- Theology of Beauty (including creation, glory, and art)
- Narrative Theology (initiated by John Sailhamer)
- Resurrection Theology (by way of NT Wright)
- Sonship (Henri Nouwen via Jay McCumber)
- Third Place Theology
This last one was initially brought to my attention by Tim Keller many moons ago, but has also been taught in the ebb and flow of our local church body throughout the years. Today, I’d like to do a concise survey of Third Place Theology. Some of these thoughts are borrowed and some are common knowledge (or would be if we really read our Bibles). There is also original content/perspective (if there is such a thing) that I’ve developed/discovered in my processing of this paradigm over the years.
Within the Sermon on the Mount, we hear Jesus say the following:
Enter through the narrow gate. For wide is the gate and broad is the road that leads to destruction, and many enter through it. But small is the gate and narrow the road that leads to life, and only a few find it.
Here we have a wide gate and a small gate, a narrow road and a broad road. What makes the broad road broad though? Why are so many on that road as compared to the other with so few?
The road that leads to destruction is broad because there are two paths on it. Those two paths (or lanes if you want to think of it that way) are “world” and “religion”. Both of those words can be used in very different ways. As we journey through the rest of this post it will become more clear what I mean by them, but for now, know that I am employing both of them on (very) negative terms.
Here is where the heart of Third Place Theology comes into play: Life is not about being on the irreligious path or the religious path — both of those places are on the broad road. The narrow road, however, is about being with God on His path, which is Jesus (see John 14:6).
There is often a way that seems right to a person, but in the end it leads to death (Proverbs 14:12, 16:25). In reactionary terms, there are two types of people. The first type grew up in a “spiritual” structure of some sort and in reaction thinks that in becoming irreligious/self-made they will find freedom and life in doing whatever they want as long as they are happy. Just as Narcissus was infatuated with himself, so does this path lead to demise. But then there is the other type of person who was more reckless in growing up and thinks redemption is about being a better person. It is a mistake to think that if we are more ethical or try harder or be more good (the opposite of being irreligious or carnal or evil), that that is what God desires for us or requires from us or where life is to be found. There are a ton of us that simply want to walk a better way on the broad road, but it’s still the broad road and it still leads to death. Maybe we don’t want to live a bad life, but striving to live a good life is not the answer ironically enough. The answer is to live a godly life which means a life with God which is only possible through faith in the character and work of Christ. Religion (in how I am using it in this context) is nothing more than a form of godliness, but without the person of God. God does not desire that we become a more ethical sinner. He has relationship, re-creation in mind, not behavioral modification. C.S. Lewis explains it like this:
As He said, a thistle cannot produce figs. If I am a field that contains nothing but grass-seed, I cannot produce wheat. Cutting the grass may keep it short: but I shall still produce grass and no wheat. If I want to produce wheat, the change must go deeper than the surface. I must be ploughed up and re-sown.
Let’s look at three scripture references briefly to firm up this third place concept a bit.
Matthew 5:5-13 | Jesus Tells Us How (Not) To Pray
Jesus says don’t be like the hypocrites (first place) who pray in order to be seen/rewarded by others; don’t pray like the Pagans (second place) who babble thinking with many words to be heard. Instead, pray to commune with the Father and pray in the vein of the Lord’s Prayer.
Luke 15:11-32 | The Lost Son(s)
The prodigal sons story is really the lynch pin of Third Place Theology. There are three main characters (the younger son, the elder son, and the father) each with a different posture. The Younger is selfish and a hedonist (worldly/irreligious), not caring about his father and wanting to blow his inheritance on whatever he thought would bring him pleasure through reckless living. The Elder has the form of a good son, but not the substance (religious). He takes care of things, he works hard and is dutiful, but when push comes to shove he really only cares about himself. He is a jealous, bitter and merciless boy who seemingly won’t enter into the father’s house because the party isn’t for him. In contrast to both of these is the father who is filled with grace and patience and love for both of his sons even though they act more like enemies towards him than offspring.
The Book of Jonah | The Heart of Mission
God told Jonah to go to the city of Nineveh and call out to it for repentance twice. The first time Jonah responds in a carnal way by ignoring God and running in the exact opposite direction. The second time he does what God tells him and the people repent and are spared. But Jonah is still pissed… he’s pissed that God saved the evil people of Nineveh, who were Jonah’s national enemy. Jonah “did his job” and it was a “success”, yet it was a complete failure from the standpoint of being with God who, even though He hated their evil, took pity on them and was merciful. Just as the tale of Luke 15 ends on a cliff hanger, so does the book of Jonah. Neither resolve and are both begging the reader/listener to think about how they will respond to the Father’s goodness after for so long trying to exalt their own.
Some other examples to think about…
- Josh Bytwerk wrote about grace as a third place (rather than the imprisonment of responsibility or the false freedom of escape).
- In the movie Celeste and Jesse Forever, Adam Sandberg plays the Younger where Rashinda Jones plays the Elder — she ends up going through a ton of loss because she wanted to be right more than she wanted to love.
- This somewhat humorous and insightful clip talks about sexuality and the difference between the male-pig and the male-smoothie and how the smoothie is actually worse. It goes on to hint at a third place, but fades out and clif hangs in a similar fashion of Jonah and Luke 15.
- There are two main philosophical forms of the gnosticism/dualism heresy.  Antinomianism says that since there is this great spirit/physical divide you can do whatever you want with your body cause it doesn’t really matter as long as you keep your “heart pure”.  Asceticism says oppositely, that you need to beat and berate your evil body into hardcore submission and then once it’s conquered you will have spiritual enlightenment. God answers us with a third place that is the antithesis of gnosticism and blows dualism out of the water. His answer: the incarnation of Christ; God with us; God IN THE FLESH.
- Blaise Pascal’s search for the third place in the cure for unrighteousness: “If they [philosophers] gave you God as an object of study, it was only to exercise your pride; they made you think you were like him and of a similar nature. And those who saw the vanity of such a pretension were cast into the other abyss, by giving you to understand that your nature was like that of the beast, and they induced you to seek your good in lust which is the lot of the animals.”
Personally, I think our tendency of bi-polar living, of swinging from one end to the other, with neither being the place God wants for us, all comes from Genesis 3. The reason we are all dualist is because the tree in the garden of Eden that we WERE NOT to eat of was the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. Good. and. Evil. To some degree “of good and evil” was probably a merism to say all knowledge, but I also think the devil is in the details. For either we are just plain evil or we try to be good on our own, and neither are rooted where they should be. We were to eat of the tree of life and settled for dualism instead. Luckily the redemption God offers can pulls us out of that system.
Why do I think this paradigm matters? Why is any of this important? Because at the core it reminds us in a complicated world that living life is not about being right, but about being with God and seeking to find out what He really says rather than living off of our wants or some systematic modus operandi. It is not a magic trick or about arrival; it’s about the process of walking in faith, about adding another frequency of hearing as we listen to Christ through Spirit and Word. Most of the time, Third Place Theology isn’t about finding a balance between two things. Rather, it helps us to interact with what’s in front of us from a higher place, a raised (albeit humble) place, a place where we are seated with Christ. Third Place Theology doesn’t always answer our questions, but it does change the conversation/perspective to something more true. And that’s a good thing, even if it irritates everyone.